Metal Printing: A Tool in the Casting Supply Chain

What is the future of the metal casting supply chain? This is a great question. As a buyer of castings, maybe you would like to know how your casting suppliers are going to advance to make your life easier? What processes or technology will be employed to improve your component quality and time to market?

Having just returned from the AFS Metalcasting Congress in Columbus, Ohio, in April, where members of the entire metal casting supply chain had gathered, I saw an increase in the presence of additive manufacturing technology on display on both the exhibition floor and in the education sessions. Over the last several years, the conversations in metalcasting on this technology have shifted from “what is additive” to “how do I design this component for additive” as the industry has shifted from learning about the opportunities to capitalizing on them.

This brings us to the feature article, “Sparking Change? Advances in Direct Metal Printing,” on p. 30 that examines the segment of additive manufacturing referred to as direct metal printing. This is a process in which metal components are built layer by layer often by fusing together a metal powder.

“Right now, it’s moving from a prototyping past to a production future,” said Tim Caffey, senior consultant for Wohlers Associates. “It’s in the process of growing up.”

When I first learned about the development of this process several years ago, my reaction was fear for metalcasters. If this new process advances enough, it will put an end to the metalcasting industry as everyone will just print their metal components. But then I took a step back, realized the true capabilities of this technology and analyzed the stakeholders involved. The metal casting supply chain has the opportunity to embrace this technology and make it a tool to reduce time to market by providing a manufacturing portfolio that offers opportunities—with and without hard tooling—for prototypes and production.

“A lot of people have this misunderstanding of additive manufacturing that it’s going to be a technology that will displace many of the traditional manufacturing processes,” said Andrew Snow, EOS of North America. “But it’s the exact opposite…We don’t see this as a threatening technology…It’s a complementary piece of equipment that’s another tool on the factory floor.”

The more tools you have at your disposal, the greater the opportunity for success. This is especially true as you work to help shape the future of the metal casting supply chain.

Developing Passion

In February, seven student teams competed as part of a Great Lakes-area college casting competition.  Teams from Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), Muskegon Community College, Purdue University, University of Northern Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Western Michigan University designed and manufactured an engineered cast component to showcase their capabilities. Serving as a judge for this competition, I had the privilege of talking to each team about their casting and the development process behind the design and manufacturing of their entry.

Through these discussions, the excitement and passion these students had for their projects was evident. These teams utilized additive manufacturing, casting process modeling software, computer-aided engineering and design, finite element analysis and CNC machining to complement traditional pattern building and casting production techniques.  They engineered and manufactured cast components for customers ranging from other students and university-based facilities to a racing team and a home restoration firm.

The criteria for judging each casting entry was focused on: benefits delivered to the casting customer, use of the unique capabilities of the casting process, and quality and workmanship.  Based on these factors, the team from the Univ. of Wisconsin-Platteville came out on top with its three cast part assembly that draws the windows shut at the former personal home and studio (named Taliesin) of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  The team was tasked with producing these historic reproductions as a replacement for the originals, installed in the home in 1910.

While interviewing each of these student teams, I caught myself reflecting upon my years in school.  Did I have anywhere near the passion toward a potential profession these student groups were showcasing? Then, taking this a step further, how did this passion begin and, subsequently, develop so quickly in these students?

The reality is that the passion (for whatever profession they pursue) is developed differently for every individual.  For some, it is following in the steps of their parents.  For others, it is following in the steps of their idols or what Hollywood has spotlighted for them. Still others are influenced by a teacher or a fellow classmate.

After my interviews for the competition, I thought about what initially sparked my passion for journalism.  It was the movie All the President’s Men. While in high school, I rented it from the video store at the urging of my father (because I had little interest in watching a 20-year-old movie). News reporters were just like spies and secret cool. That was the profession for me.

Hopefully, a few of those 30-plus students representing those seven schools at the competition are thinking similarly about manufacturing and metalcasting.  This would result in industry being the real winner.

Industry Wins in Casting Competition

One of my favorite parts of the year is the annual AFS/Metal Casting Design & Purchasing Casting Competition. The submissions start arriving in December and continue rolling in through the first part of February, and it feels a little like Christmas. The castings come from a range of processes, materials and markets but they all have something in common—they illustrate the capabilities of metalcasting technology. 

Many of the submissions are conversions from another manufacturing method and/or material. Some are the result of the adoption of new technology. Others display obvious design engineering skills. 

The casting competition is an important chance to allow the industry to shine a light on its ingenuity, collaborative spirit and customer service. Innovation isn’t only happening at the research level, but in the engineering offices and shop floors, as well. 

Metalcasters are in the business of making better parts for their customers. Sometimes the customers push for improvement; many times metalcasters approach customers with cost-saving ideas. The result just may be the next Casting of the Year.

Judging has closed, and the 2015 Casting of the Year will be announced in the May/June issue of Metal Casting Design & Purchasing and on display at Metalcasting Congress April 21-23 in Columbus, Ohio. In the meantime, browse through all of last year’s casting submissions here.

Take a Look at the Numbers

We have the numbers for you.

U.S. metalcasting forecast data. Domestic census. Global casting production.

If you need information on the state of the domestic or global metalcasting industry, you will find much of what is available anywhere within this issue of Metal Casting Design and Purchasing (MCDP). This is our home-grown data that we utilize to better understand the industry in which we operate.  We are providing it so you can better understand one of your most critical supplier industries.

The U.S. forecast shows continued moderate growth for the next few years. Uncertainty in the oil, farming and mining markets is a cause for concern, while the automotive and various construction markets give us reasons to smile. With the diversity of end-use markets served by the metalcasting industry, an overall forecast almost always is a mixed bag.  The key for you as a buyer of castings is to understand the markets that are critical to your casting suppliers so you understand the implications of fluctuations

For our domestic census, the underlying theme is the diversity of casting capabilities present in the U.S. industry. The key when designing and sourcing metal castings is to marry the proper material with the correct process to unleash the power of metalcasting. The diversity in manufacturing capabilities makes this a difficult task. Rely on your existing suppliers for new components being developed.  They are the casting experts who can guide you on your design and sourcing decisions, even if they aren’t the ones that will ultimately produce the component.

The global census report paints the picture of the global supply chain for castings. The global sourcing dynamic has changed dramatically in the last five years as the belief that all casting production would leave North America for low-cost countries has now shifted to many wondering if North America is the low-cost global sourcing option for all castings. This census also provides comparative data for how countries have evolved in the last few years. With economic recovery different across the globe, the various casting markets reflect that trend.

While the high-level data in these reports won’t provide you with the whole story, it should be a good start.  Greater detail more specific to your end-markets and the types of castings you buy is often a necessity.  But the key is to secure the data so you better understand one of your critical supplier industries. Without that understanding, you may lose sight of your key metalcasters and, ultimately, your product quality.

Share Your Interest in Manufacturing

We really do change as we age. Our opinions evolve. Our tastes develop. Our interests change.

One example from my life is the role of sports.  In my teens and early 20s, I was an avid watcher of college and professional sports, spending entire days consumed by the action on the screen or on the field in front of me.  Today, while I still watch my teams and follow the news, I prefer to be an active participant by coaching my daughters and practicing with them (usually missing the games that were once can’t miss).

The reason this discussion is pertinent to manufacturing are the two pictures you see at the bottom of this Editorial.  The photo on the left is a metal casting that connects the chain for a swing to the horizontal support bar on a swing set. The photo on the right is an arm that supports the kettle where popcorn cooks in a carnival-style popcorn maker. These are photos I took of metal castings just because it was cool to see castings-in-action that I have never seen before.

During a presentation I give on the current state of the metalcasting industry, I often say that when you stand in the middle of an average American city, you are never more than 10 feet from a metal casting.  The reason I state this is to emphasize the importance of manufacturing and metalcasting in our everyday lives, even if we don’t see it. While I have made that statement hundreds of times, it is hard to hide my excitement when it comes true before my eyes.

Eighteen years ago, I didn’t care about manufacturing. Today, I take pictures of manufactured components because I am excited to see them.

To this end, we have set up a Facebook contest for casting buyers and designers as well as metalcasters.  Post your photos of castings you encounter in use in everyday life (outside of your work) to the American Foundry Society (AFS) Facebook page.  All photos entered by January 31 will be judged to determine the most unique casting-in-action and the best casting spotter.

We all know manufacturing is part of our professional lives.  But for many of you, your interests have evolved to a point that manufacturing is a passion in your personal lives as well. Now is the time to let the industry see it.

Metalcasting’s Scientific Formula

The science of designing and sourcing a metal casting is tricky.

You may be somewhat familiar with the manufacturing process of metalcasting, having seen some videos, read some material and maybe even toured a supplier or two.

You probably are familiar with cast materials (iron, steel, aluminum, etc.), but metalcasting-specific terminology, like 356 aluminum, class 30 gray iron and austempered ductile iron, is unique.

Welcome to Metal Casting Design & Purchasing (MCDP), the magazine exploring the science of metalcasting to enhance your understanding of its capabilities. I say welcome because our magazine always has new readers. For those who have been with us for a while, our door is always open to you.

Our goal at MCDP is to make your professional life easier by helping you with anything and everything related to metalcasting, including that formula to design and source the optimal casting.

If you are a designer and you need to design a cast component from scratch, convert a fabrication to a casting, improve the manufacturability of a casting defect and/or rectify a defect occurring in production, we have resources for you.

If you are a purchaser and you need to find a casting supplier, qualify a new supplier, understand a material specification and/or decipher a quote for a casting, we are here to help.

We want to be your casting resource. Since we don’t produce any castings, our skin in the game is to make sure you are provided a cast solution every time it makes sense.

In your quest to further understand the science of castings, this issue of MCDP offers a variety of help for both the novice and experienced designer and buyer.

Take a look at our feature, “When to Cast, When to Machine,” on p. 29. All designers face the dilemma of whether to cast a feature or machine it. Typically, designers default to machining because that is what they understand best.  But, opportunities exist for casting to reduce costs.

“As you go from sand casting to permanent mold to diecasting and investment casting, you want more as-cast features because you achieve better tolerances,” said Jiten Shah, president of Product Development Analysis, Naperville, Ill. “But the dimensional tolerances are not as great as machining, no matter what process you use.”

In our feature, “Casting Sourcing: Choosing Between Green Sand, Nobake,” on p. 33, the hope is to further your understanding of selecting the proper combination of material and casting process to ensure the best source for your engineered cast component. As stated in the article, “While the green sand process is one of the most economical metal manufacturing methods, when an application requires the process to reach beyond its normal capabilities, it can become more expensive.” The key for casting buyers is to try to work within the realistic realm of the capabilities of a manufacturing process and the supplier performing it. When suppliers are asked to perform outside their comfort zone, the results can be more prone to fall short of expectations.

Metalcasting is a science. When designing and sourcing cast components, you must have the correct scientific formula to ensure success. MCDP is your cheat sheet to developing that formula.

Castings Equip Amazing Work in Chile

VLTAstronomers from all over the world share resources in the Atacama desert of Chile, the driest place on the planet. Its lack of airborne water vapor is among the factors that make this region one of the best places for telescopes to view the night sky, and it is home to many of them. 

MUSE instrumentation on the Very Large Telescope The technology employed by the European Southern Observatory at Paranal is under continuous development. A telescope dubbed the VLT (for “very large”) uses cryogenics, lasers and other specialized equipment to enable unprecedented feats of astronomy.

New metal castings on the VLT include two 3D print-enabled components. Using a printed thermoplastic pattern, German firm voxeljet AG produced a complex, investment cast sensor arm for use with the telescope’s MUSE instrumentation. Metalcaster ACTech GmbH investment cast a ductile iron “spacer” component using a laser sintered pattern.A team of astronomers prepares to begin MUSE Science Verification observations as the new instrumentation debuts.

The MUSE instrumentation is on its second generation, recently installed on the VLT, which has now undergone a series of successful tests performed to ensure its operation. "It enables us to see a greater field, allowing the study of multiple objects at one time," explained Cristian Esparza, VLT telescope and instrument operator. The culmination of approximately 10 years of research and development, MUSE exponentially increases the VLT users' ability to study everything from black holes to entire galaxies.

Check out the view from the VLT site in this video.
The VLT is moved into position as the night’s work begins.

Simple Answers, Tough Execution

I lost my keys last month.

We all have done it.  In this case, these lost keys required all five of my family members and an hour and 45 minutes to find them.

During my family’s all-out, turn-everything-upside-down search of our house, garage and cars, I kept saying to myself, the simplest answer probably is the correct one. For me, the simplest answer would have been that the keys were left in my car. So, we searched every crack and crevice of my car at least five times. But it took one final gasp of frustration during the last search of the car for me to take a step back, stare in the distance for some clarity (across the top of my SUV), and see my keys resting on the roof.

In MCDP, our articles show you the spectacular AND they reinforce the fundamentals. We understand that you do not live in the world of metal castings like we do.  As a result, we must continue to educate on the basics of success in designing and purchasing castings because these fundamentals are at the core of what will really improve your efficiencies. This relates to our feature, “10 Cost Considerations in Your Castings,” on p. 25.

Ultimately, many of your purchasing decisions for metal castings come down to costs. The key is to understand the many factors that go into the price of a casting from the metalcaster perspective compared to the total cost of acquisition for you as a buyer. Many simple decisions you make during the design and sourcing process can dramatically affect casting cost without affecting quality or delivery. What you are specifying to your supplier may seem routine to you (and may be in other industries), but could be extreme for the metalcasting process.

For example, how do you specify surface finish on your cast components? Here is a quote from the cost considerations article: “Although a smooth surface on a cast part often is considered an aspect of its quality, this is not an accurate indicator of the overall quality of a casting.”

Buyers often specify high-level surface finish without understanding the casting process and what that surface finish entails in manufacturing.  If the part is visible to a consumer, then the visual appeal of a glass-like surface is critical. But if the part isn’t visible, why incur the extra cost for that type of surface, especially if it doesn’t affect quality or the surface is going to be machined?

The success of any business comes down to mastering the fundamentals. For designing and purchasing castings, an understanding of the basics can take you a long way.

When I came home from work the evening I lost my keys, my 11-year-old daughter Abigail smiled at me and said, “Remember, the simplest answer probably is the correct one.”  I will continue to remind myself of this and hopefully you will too.

Giving the Industry a Face

Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

U.S. metalcasting earned a starring role in a segment on NBC Nightly News June 30. The segment spotlighted Lodge Manufacturing Co., its cast iron pans and its metalcasting facility in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Apparently, cast iron cookware is soaring in popularity.

You can watch the video here.

Usually, cast metal components are hidden under sheet metal and plastic or camouflaged in an assembly of parts, fasteners, wiring and rubber. More than $34 billion worth of castings are made in the U.S. in a year, yet this industry is so often unnoticed by the general public.

Casting companies like Lodge—whose products are seen and touched by people in their daily lives, fill a unique role as visual representation of the industry. These companies include East Jordan Iron Works and Neenah, whose names are etched in castings along countless sidewalks and streets. Or Kohler, whose cast plumbing and bath fixtures are touched by millions of people every day, and Ping, who casts its golf club heads in Arizona.   

These ambassadors for the industry are doing it well. Lodge’s cast iron skillets are often given as speaker awards at industry conferences, and at a recent conference I attended, the presenters could not contain their smiles upon receiving their U.S.-made cookware.

Thank you to those casting businesses who serve up our casting examples. It’s not their most important job, and it doesn’t make them the best metalcasters in the industry, but their ambassadorship provides faces to the industry. Without them, the industry would be close to invisible.  

Think About Communication

The annual casting competition is a showcase for metalcasting’s latest and greatest.  And this year’s winner, the oil pan for John Deere cast by Aarrowcast Inc., Shawano, Wis., is no exception.  By incorporating multiple components to increase performance and reduce cost, this cast component is another shining example of what can be accomplished when the designer and metalcaster work together to secure a solution.

And that really is the story with this oil pan casting. Both John Deere and Aarrowcast brought their expertise to the table during the product development process to solve design, production and quality issues.  Even though the process required a couple years and several iterations to achieve a final component, the result validates their efforts.

“This part took us out of our comfort zone, and as a result, we’ve changed our entire system to work with our customer up front to ensure success at launch,” said Aarrowcast engineering manager Jim Olson.

In today’s marketplace, the push for open, up-front communication is critical, especially in the product development stage for castings. The lack of strong communication between buyer and supplier in global sourcing situations is one of the reasons many firms have returned to localized sourcing as much as possible.

But the reality is not all casting buyers have read the headlines and realized the offshore sourcing movement isn’t as perfect as everyone once thought. Your firm may still enforce a corporate-wide edict that a certain percentage of sourcing must be from low-cost countries. Or maybe your firm is similar to one I encountered recently at which I heard the following statements:

“U.S. metalcasters have a lot of catching up to do.”

“U.S. metalcasters have to improve to compete with plants in China, India and Mexico.”

While these two phrases aren’t exact quotes, they are paraphrases of a discussion with a group of experienced casting buyers.  These buyers said they want to purchase in the U.S. but they just weren’t able to find suppliers offering the total package (price, technology and/or capabilities). Even though these buyers require smaller runs of many different materials and sizes, global sourcing is the more attractive option to them.

If you are one of the firms still thinking like this group of buyers, ask yourself if you could achieve what John Deere and Aarrowcast achieved with your global suppliers.

In the last few years, manufacturing in the U.S. and North America has seen a resurgence in both production and reputation as most firms have refocused on regionalized sourcing, reshoring castings with regularity back from low-cost sources. Many of the conversations appear to have turned from casting price to total cost of acquisition, so costs like defects, shipping and engineering time are being factored into the final decision. These are the conversations that lead to innovation.  These are the conversations that lead to a Casting of the Year.

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